Authors: Stephen Baxter
Avatak was staring up at the ceiling, at a panel where Mongol warriors on horseback shot tiny arrows at a rampaging dragon. ‘What a room this is.’
‘That’s what plundering a continent earns you.’
They came now to the scholar’s facility, and Avatak saw that it was a series of glass-walled compartments – domes, square-walled boxes, some a good deal taller than he was. Tubes of
some flexible material led from each box to a complex apparatus of brass and glass, fussed over by attendants.
And in each of the boxes there was something alive, he saw. Something growing. A tray of soil bearing grass shoots in this box; in the next, what looked like wheat; in the next, potatoes; in the
next, rice. These boxes were bathed with sunlight from open windows in the walls above. In the very largest boxes there were animals, one to each compartment: a horse, a cow, a sheep –
, Avatak saw with shock, a small, skinny, youngish man of Cathay, sitting naked on a mat, his eyes averted, bowls of piss and shit beside him. Beside each container was a similarly sized
box, quite empty, but fitted with tubes and valves. The largest dome contained a tree, of a kind unfamiliar to Avatak, with wide branches and bright green leaves, growing from a big ceramic pot. A
tree, taller than he was, in the middle of this vast room.
Uzzia stared, amazed. ‘By the Storm God’s left buttock, what under heaven is this?’ Then she remembered herself, and she bowed hastily to Bolghai. ‘My apologies, lord. I
am a simple trader; I am overwhelmed by this evidence of your mighty learning.’
Bolghai looked amused. ‘Oh, get up, madam. Overwhelmed even though you understand not a jot of it, I suppose?’
Pyxeas snorted. ‘Uzzia, Bolghai is studying properties of the air. We are all at the mercy of the weather, yes? And though I, Pyxeas, and the generations who went before me, have shown
that the great cycles of the weather are dominated by astronomy, by the dipping and nodding of the world as it orbits the central fire, it is nevertheless the air that delivers that weather to us.
So we study it too.
‘After all, invisible though it may be the air is
; it has weight and substance. You can feel it dragging into your lungs, you can use pumps to evacuate it from a chamber
– we all felt its lack up on the roof of the world. And the air is made up of several component parts, which can be separated with sufficient ingenuity. This was first achieved by Northlander
scholars. We know there is
, an air full of energy, which we suspect is the agent that supports combustion – and indeed the slower fire that burns in our bodies to sustain
life. And then there is
This was first identified by a scholar at Etxelur called Cleomedes, of Greek descent, who studied the burning of charcoal in a closed vessel.’
Bolghai said, ‘The scholars of Cathay have long shared their knowledge with Northland, a tradition I have sought, in my time, to maintain, or rather revive. I with my party was the first
to travel to Northland after the conquests of the Great Khans. And, given the importance of the air to the weather which shapes all our destinies, as Pyxeas points out, we have continued its study
here. Although Cathay scholars are perhaps of a more practical bent than those of Northland.’
Pyxeas sighed. ‘True, true, but the first Wall-builders would cringe to hear you say it. That’s the legacy of Pythagoras and his Greeks, who could be a bit contemplative.’
Bolghai gestured at his apparatus. ‘We have found ways to measure the presence and concentration of fixed air more precisely. For instance here, you see, the air from this chamber is fed
through lime dissolved in water; it precipitates a kind of chalk whose weight we can determine . . . The details are unimportant.’
‘Not to me, they’re not!’ thundered Pyxeas. ‘I want to examine every tube and valve, every seal and measuring gauge. Excellent experimental design,’ he said now,
walking around the boxes. ‘Can you see it, Avatak? Why these empty boxes, for instance?’
That was easy; Avatak had seen similar set-ups in Pyxeas’ own studies. ‘They are for comparison. A horse in this box, not in that box that’s otherwise the same; you can
subtract one from the other to see what difference the horse makes.’
Bolghai said, ‘Of course the emissions and absorptions vary depending on the plant or beast enclosed, and indeed on its conditions – if the horse is agitated or not, resting or
exercising, for instance. All these things we can study.’
Uzzia asked, ‘Who is the man in the box?’
Bolghai seemed puzzled by the question. '
? Why – he is the subject. I sent specifications to the slavers regarding size and weight and general health. I hope to extend the
studies to compare different ethnicities, ages, health conditions – sex, of course. I am not concerned with
‘What is most important is the conclusion. Which is this.’ With the air of a showman he walked them past the compartments containing the grass, the grain. ‘Vegetables, plants,
trees – as they grow these things
the fixed gas from the air. But if they are burned they release that gas again. Whereas animals, from sheep to pigs to men, they
the fixed gas as they breathe. All of this in the processes of their lives, you see – it seems accurate, as you say, Pyxeas, to think of life as a kind of slow burning, animal life at least.
Plants and animals, absorption and release—’
‘Yes, yes. And together they shape the atmosphere – and
. But to what end, what end? And how does this relate to the longwinter? For somehow it must . .
‘Quite so,’ Bolghai said. ‘To explore that I am also running studies of the physical properties of fixed air. Perhaps that will offer some clues. But the properties are subtle,
the apparatus unwieldy and preliminary. Nevertheless I have some first results. We can proceed to that when we’re done here.’
‘Good, good,’ Pyxeas murmured. The two scholars wandered off, talking, debating.
Servants stood by Uzzia and Avatak, heads bent, waiting for instructions.
‘I want to get out of here,’ whispered Avatak.
‘Yes. And I’ve got deals to do. We’ve delivered Pyxeas to his scholar; we’ve done our jobs for now. Let’s go.’
Uzzia wandered through Daidu, reacquainting herself with a city she’d visited once before. Avatak followed her, gradually finding his bearings.
Within its double walls the city was laid out like a board game played by giants, the rectangle of walls enclosing a grid-pattern of streets, with tidy blocks of houses and inns and
manufactories, temples and schools, all on a tremendous scale. Avatak, a boy from a chaotic land of ice and water, even having visited Northland’s mighty Wall, felt utterly out of place in
this vision of stone and geometry.
But the vision could be pleasing. You would turn a corner and come upon a park gleaming green in the late autumn sunshine, with animals apparently roaming loose: squirrels, ermine, deer, even
stags. A river ran right through the city, and people walked its banks and crossed delicate bridges. The people were both Cathay and Mongol, the latter in their colourful silk tunics and coats.
People spoke Mongol, or one of the tongues of Cathay, or a rapid language that Uzzia identified as Persian, a common tongue for the traders who came here.
Some of the grander folk went on horseback. The cultured Cathay folk seemed to flinch at seeing horses inside a city, but the Mongols’ bond with their animals was indissoluble. Avatak saw
one man ride along under a canopy of gold, carried by bearers who had to run alongside. Uzzia said this was probably a baron, one of the Khan’s top generals, who would command a hundred
thousand men or more.
In one place by the river Avatak saw a tower, four or five times taller than a man, with a small waterwheel at its side. On the top was a brass construction, a ring showing the constellations,
models of sun and moon. It was a representation of the sky, driven by the waterwheel, like a tremendously expanded version of Pyxeas’ oracle. Perhaps the links between Cathay and Northland
really were deep and ancient, Avatak thought.
Uzzia said she wanted to go out of the city proper and into the suburbs, where the livelier markets were to be found. So they made their way to the northern wall, heading for a gate. The gates
themselves were huge, like fortresses built into the walls, each hosting hundreds of soldiers. Uzzia spoke in her cursory Mongol to the guards, ensuring they could get back in later, even without
in their pockets. Beyond the gate they had to pass through the city’s outer layer of defences, over a moat filled with brackish water and then to an outer wall.
There seemed to be a whole army of soldiers in rough camps in the space between the walls, with heaps of weapons, herds of the Mongols’ stocky ponies. ‘Not so much a city,’
murmured Uzzia as they walked, ‘as a fortress, and designed by Kublai to be that way. Well, I suppose it is inevitable; Old Hattusa was a fortress-city too, another capital of
The suburb beyond the outer walls was a city in itself, but much more disorderly, crowded, with a pall of greasy smoke rising from a hundred fires. There was a steady stream of traffic through
the gates, of pedestrians, horse riders, and carts drawn by bullocks and horses. Avatak noticed a line of people, men, women and children, all of them shabby-looking, strung out along the length of
the outer wall, leading away from the gate. They were waiting for something handed out at the gate itself by a team of soldiers; more tough-looking troops patrolled the line, weapons ready,
prepared for any trouble.
Uzzia, evidently feeling more at home in this bustling market town, plunged into its narrow alleys. The houses here were of mud or sod bricks, and roofed by turf or wood slats. There was
business being done everywhere, in inns, stores selling food or clothes or spices or precious goods, and brothels with exotic whores, both female and male, beckoning from doorways. Uzzia soon found
a tremendous central marketplace, crowded with stalls. Avatak was baffled by the masses of porcelain, silks, plums, watermelons, and a blizzard of paper money. But the marketplace backed onto a
stockyard where animals, distressed and calling out, were being lined up in huge numbers for slaughter in the open air. Corpses dangled from hooks, and the cobbles were sticky with old blood.
Avatak had gutted seals and flensed walruses; he was far from squeamish. But the sheer scale of this slaughter, however necessary to feed the hungry city, repelled him.
With a word to Uzzia, he turned away and began to walk back towards the gate. He was curious about the line of people at the wall. When he came to the line he backtracked, trying to find the
end, but the line stretched all the way to the corner of the wall’s rectangular layout, and back down the next side, and on out of his sight. There must be thousands of people in this one
line, perhaps tens of thousands.
He walked back along the line towards its head. Every so often the waiting horde would move forward in a great rippling movement that spread along the line, and people jostled, making sure their
neighbours didn’t try to jump a space. There were always fights somewhere, and soldiers would leap in with clubs raised to sort it out. Whatever it was these people were waiting for, they
needed it badly.
The line ended at a simple table, manned by two officers and heavily guarded by a circle of troops. They backed onto a kind of storehouse built into the wall itself. The soldiers made a note of
each supplicant’s name on a paper scroll, and then a bundle was handed over, wrapped in paper. The supplicant would hurry away with nods of obeisance and gratitude.
‘Bread,’ Uzzia murmured in his ear.
Avatak glanced around, surprised she’d found him. ‘Bread? That’s all?’
‘A daily hand-out from the Khan. And they send grain from the city stores to the provinces too. Apparently they have been feeding twenty thousand people from the city alone this way. But
the granaries are emptying and every day the dole is cut down a little more. Of course the soldiers are always well fed. We need to get back inside the city.’
‘A messenger found me. There’s been an explosion at the palace.’
‘There’s been a
She grinned. ‘That rascal Pyxeas. You can’t leave him alone for a heartbeat, can you?’
They were brought to another corner of the palace, a smaller laboratory. Here another elaborate experimental apparatus had been set up, on a lesser scale – stands and
tubes and flasks and pipes, mirrors, small oil heaters. But this equipment had been scattered around the room. The carpet was scorched, the paint on the wall blistered. One servant seemed to have
been injured, a weeping woman, and a doctor was tending to her burned arm. Soldiers stood around, looking shocked, dismayed, as well they might, Avatak supposed. The explosion, deep inside the home
of the Khan himself, must have made them fear assassins, and, worse, the punishment they would receive if any harm came to the Khan or his family.
And here was Pyxeas, a blissful smile on a soot-stained face, the fringe of white hair around his scalp vertical, his robe smeared black. Bolghai stood behind him, equally begrimed, rather more
shamefaced. ‘Avatak!’ Pyxeas cried. ‘I hope you enjoyed your walk. You missed a bit of fun.’
‘I can see that. What were you making here – eruptors?’
‘Nothing of the sort! Though I can see you might have difficulty working it all out given that it’s lying in pieces everywhere . . . Where is the gas tube, Bolghai?’
‘Over there,’ said the Mongol. ‘And there. Oh, and there’s a bit stuck in the ceiling, I think.’
As the philosophers and their servants gathered the fragments of the broken apparatus, gradually Avatak pieced together what Bolghai had been attempting here.
‘What controls our weather?’ Pyxeas asked. ‘The sun, whose position in the sky as determined by astronomical considerations fixes the amount of heat delivered to the world
– and the air, through which that heat must pass. But
does the sun’s heat pass through the air? How much of it is blocked – and how much trapped, as the thinnest linen
blanket will trap some of the warmth of the body? That’s what this apparatus seeks to determine.’